Our Morning School series on brewing the best coffee is chugging along, and today we’re moving beyond propagandising for good coffee and getting into the nitty-gritty of what to do with your high-quality, fresh-roasted beans. Contrary to how it might seem if you listen to hardcore coffee geeks, brewing good cups of coffee at home doesn’t have to be approached as if you are taking on a whole new hobby. A few basic principles will give you a toehold into almost every brewing method and with just a bit of trial and error (and of course good beans) you’ll discover that a great cup doesn’t have to be hard to find.
Coffee, Water, Grind And Time
Coffee brewing is essentially a “just add water” situation. The caveat is that you want to measure the amounts of coffee and water, use water at the right temperature, find the appropriate grind size, and control the amount of time that the coffee grounds and water are in contact. Every brew method recipe, whether filter style (drip machines, chemex, pour over) or immersion style (plungers, eva solo, siphon) can be largely expressed within these variables.
Clean filtered water of the sort you’d happily drink is a must. Most manual brew methods will perform best at temperatures just below boiling points (100 degrees Celsisus). You’ll discover some coffees are more sensitive to water temperature than others — unusually dark roasts are able to tolerate much lower brewing temperatures (which makes them more popular for use in drip machines, which rarely get water hot enough).
Coffee To Water Ratio
Coffee nerds differ by degrees about what the most correct coffee to water ratio is, and you’ll want to explore nudging your coffee dose up or down to suit your own tastes and specific gear. A good general starting point is just over 60 grams of coffee per litre of water.
More specifically, you can aim for a ratio of 1:16 or 1 gram of coffee per 16ml of water. I keep an online ratio calculator bookmarked for just this purpose. I’ll make the case below for owning a good kitchen gram scale which can actually make precise manual brewing a breeze.
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Brewing Tools: An Overview
There is no one “right” way to make coffee and hundreds of devices out there to choose from. In the next lesson, we’ll explore in more depth some popular brew methods, gear, and techniques.
The One Essential: The Grinder
Every coffee nerd will give you the same lecture: pre-ground coffee just doesn’t cut it. The full flavour and aroma that make good coffee so intoxicating is mortally wounded when ground coffee is left to sit for long. Fancy packages, plastic pods and inert gas flushing do very little to change this cruel fact.
Blade Grinders: The ubiquitous blade grinder works by chopping the beans, not unlike a blender, resulting in non-uniform grind size (“dust and boulders”) that can lead to some over-extraction or bitterness when brewing. Most of my colleagues in the strident forefront of the coffee trade will tell you a meagre blade grinder is a nonstarter, but the truth is even an imperfect fresh grind is better than buying pre-ground beans. Some brew methods are sufficiently forgiving that you can still get very nice results with cheap blade grinding. Blade grinders are easily found for around $20 and they all produce roughly similar results.
Burr Grinders: Not cheap, but far and away the best investment you can make in your coffee universe outside of buying top-quality fresh roasted beans. A burr grinder crushes the beans between two sharp burrs — one stationary, one rotating — and adjusting the gap between the burrs lets you dial in a specific grind size and produce relatively uniform grinds for better extraction.
Many people make the mistake of purchasing expensive drip brewers with blue LEDs and timers and numerous buttons and then balk at dropping dough on the grinder. This is exactly backwards thinking. A good burr grinder is a unmatchable precision tool, whereas any automatic drip machine is merely a fancy way to dribble hot water on your grounds.
At a simpler level, I have a habit of collecting hand-cranked burr grinders, and though these require a bit more work than pressing a button, they can be great for folks making one cup at a time, for camping, or for keeping in your bug-out-bag when the end times roll around.
Timers, Scales And Kettles
A timer is useful for almost every manual brew method and can even come in handy when figuring out the best grind size for automatic drip machines. Most smartphones are good for this, but if like me you prefer to check Instagram and Twitter while your coffee is brewing, then a dedicated digital count-up kitchen timer is a worthwhile investment.
A gram-accurate scale can bring precision into your brewing and remove some of the guesswork when pouring water from kettles. For instance, when filling a plunger directly from your kettle, it can be hard to correctly eyeball where to stop pouring as wet coffee grounds bloom up with escaping gasses. A scale lets you dodge having to pre-measure your water into a kettle or fuss with finding a fill line. Just put the whole kit and caboodle of your brewing device on the scale, tare it out, and start pouring to the desired water weight (remember 1 gram = 1 millilitre).
It actually makes brewing easier. Though it might feel like adding a scale makes your morning routine into too much of a chemistry class, you’ll find it actually makes the process a much more brainless and autopilot affair once you’ve dialed in your “recipe.” Thanks to my slick-looking kitchen scale I’m able to make my first cup of the morning with barely any brain activity involved.
Whether you’re using precise gram scales or just simple scoops, the important thing is that you make sure your measurements are repeatable and adjustable. In most cases, if starting with a baseline brew recipe and ratio, just a few brews and a small amount of trial and error — little adjustments in grind, dose, dwell time, and a bit of technique — will get you to a reliable sweet spot. And expect to pour a few brews down the sink at first whenever introducing a new brew method to your kitchen.
In the next lesson we’ll dig in on several great methods and peek into the deep rabbit hole that is home espresso.
Tony Konecny wears a number of hats at the awesome coffee subscription service Tonx which he cofounded as part of his long crusade to bring great coffee into kitchens, cubicles and caves. Beloved by shut-ins and coffee connoisseurs alike.